How I Teach

Why this teacher hopes her voice is still working by the end of the day

PHOTO: Courtesy Lisa Lee
Lisa Lee, center right, one of two gifted and talented teachers at Wheat Ridge High School, leads a discussion. Lee was a teacher of the year finalist.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

If Lisa Lee’s voice is gone by the end of the day, she believes she has failed her students.

It is the students, not the teacher, who should be doing more talking during class, Lee said.

Lee, a 29-year veteran who helps run the Gifted and Talented program at Wheat Ridge High School, was one of six finalists for Colorado’s Teacher of the Year 2017.

Read on to learn how she decorates her room each year, what website she uses to plan lessons and what she thinks makes a good lesson.

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: From my students: Exuberant, spontaneous and different, with a focus on personal connections

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I come in at 7 a.m. to prepare for the day. I answer emails, get lesson materials ready, and meet with students/parents/teachers as needed. First period begins at 7:25 a.m. Second period is my only planning period of the day. While teachers in our school have two plans, our program is growing so much, we gave one period up this year to accommodate the numbers We have no regrets even though we never get everything done. I typically am here until 6 p.m. everyday.

What does your classroom look like?
It is entirely student focused and student driven. The walls and ceiling have quotes painted on them by students (an annual beginning of the year freshman project), we have a piano, three couches, and no student desks – only tables. We do not use overhead lighting – only lamps, which are all over the room. We have 10 desktops for student use, and the cutest bunny ever!

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
I love my SmartBoard! We use it for so many things. I’m moving more and more away from paper lessons to shared documents and lessons on Google. I frequently use Power Point, Excel, Microsoft Publisher, and PowToon. Here are a few websites I frequently use because they offer a variety of different information. Our elective is focused on development of the whole student, so we plan our lessons with that in mind:

http://www.rinkworks.com/brainfood/p/latreal1.shtml
http://www.corsinet.com/braincandy/riddle1a.html
http://www.mensaforkids.org/
http://creativitygames.net/
http://www.cnn.com/studentnews
http://www.teachertube.com/
http://www.history.com/
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/teachers-resources/
http://mentalfloss.com/

How do you plan your lessons?
We are so fortunate because there is no prescribed curriculum for the program. We have been able to totally create it, based on the needs of our students. My co-teacher focuses lessons on juniors and seniors, and his emphasis is job shadowing, college preparation, and “adulting.” I focus lessons on freshmen and sophomores, with both grades being a project-based curriculum.

Freshmen work on student choice projects with facilitation from me as needed. Sophomores focus on service learning, and their projects are geared to meet that focus.

We open class with a thought-provoking, student-created and presented lesson, so the planning behind that involves a lot of front-loading and modeling at the beginning of the year. They come to us to discuss ideas for their openings as needed. We frequently use parents as experts, based on their fields of expertise (chefs, volunteer coordinators, architects, engineers, CPAs, artists, musicians, astronomers, engineers, etc).

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
Student engagement! In my opinion, the best lessons are the ones that do not involve me being the main source of knowledge. I find that if I get out of the way and let students explore and learn together through discussion, debate, Socratic Seminars, etc., the lessons are so much richer and have so much more value. If my voice is giving out at the end of the day, I haven’t been as effective a teacher as I want to be.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I conference with students on a daily basis, and am constantly checking for understanding and whether or not I need to clarify something. I also provide our lessons on Google Docs, so students are able to access information if I’m not right there with them. And of course, I address things as they come up in the moment.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
Check in! There may be something totally unrelated to my class — it usually is — that is causing the issue. I usually do this one-on-one. Students are people with lives outside of my classroom, and if I don’t acknowledge the impact that life has when they come to my class, I am doing them a disservice.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Emails and phone calls are my most common communication choices. I also send home fliers with information as needed, and include important details on our website. We have two major events every year, and I rely heavily on parent volunteers to help, and I find that as time goes on they become friends as well as parents of my students.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
So many times papers go home with me, and never make it out of my car! I am using Google Docs more and more. They give me the opportunity to peruse for work being turned in before I sit down to grade each item individually. I utilize mentors a lot — upperclassmen sit with those in lower grades and go over work before it is submitted so they can make corrections before it is turned in to me for a grade. I use same-grade peers in much the same way. After 29 years of teaching, I still haven’t found a way to keep grading papers from consuming me at various times throughout the school year. My philosophy is that if it’s important enough for them to take their time to complete, then it’s important enough for me to take my time to grade.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers involving lawyers. I’ve just completed the Scott Pratt series featuring Joe Dillard, the Robert Bailey McMurtrie series, and am currently reading a Robert Dugoni book. I drive 35 miles one way to get to work, so I listen to a lot of audio books as well. And if it has a ‘Harry’ and a ‘Potter’ in the title, it is devoured quickly! (Side note: I apply to Hogwarts every year, but am afraid that my Muggle blood has kept me from being considered. I won’t give up, though.)

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Embrace the glorious mess that you are.” Period.

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher doesn’t come to class with ironclad lessons. Instead, students help her plan along the way.

Teacher Denise Perritt (far left) poses with her high school English students and a guest speaker who visited her class, author Robert Fulghum.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Denise Perritt, a reading specialist and high school English teacher at the tiny Paradox Valley School in the western Colorado town of Paradox, knew she wanted to teach as an elementary school student. The inspiration? Her fifth-grade teacher, who showed her the joy in teaching.

Perritt, who also serves as vice principal of the charter school, talked to Chalkbeat about her former teacher’s special qualities, the importance of parent feedback and why she likes it when students laugh in class.

Perritt is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I was inspired by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Johnson. She led her classroom with compassion, which caused me to believe I could teach. Miss Johnson genuinely cared about our learning, but she also cared about us as students. I learned from my previous teachers in grades K-4, but they were all about the learning and not so much about personally getting to know their students.

I really noticed and liked this teaching style. Further, Miss Johnson’s class was fun and we helped each other learn so everyone was successful, which felt good. I was not just responsible for my own learning, but also for the success of my friends and classmates. So, I guess this is when I first experienced the joy of teaching and became hooked.

What does your classroom look like?
I teach in multiple spaces within our school (sometimes even having to move in the middle of a lesson when the conference room is needed for a meeting). My class spaces are small resource rooms in which I try to create learning energy we can take with us (because my class spaces are fluid, but also as inspiration for students to make learning fun for themselves). I believe learning is a state of mind and does not always have to be connected to a particular place. Although environment does inspire learning, we can create a fun place to learn anywhere if we have the desire to learn within us.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my________?
My heart. My desire to teach started in my heart when my fifth grade teacher’s compassion for her students and teaching stirred my soul and started me thinking about teaching. There is definitely an art and science to teaching. I believe students learn more —and there is plenty of research to support my belief — when they know teachers sincerely care about them. (Not just about what they are learning, but also about the joy in their lives.)

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Honestly, I do not have a favorite lesson. I engage students in my planning (i.e. we decide together which novels we will read and what we will write about) so learning is fun and meaningful for all of us. My students often come up with better lesson ideas than I would.

As we progress through lessons, we include things along the way. For example, one group of readers chose the novel “Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen. The story is about burrowing owls and saving them from having their habitat destroyed. Just yesterday, I received a call from my principal, Jon, who is on vacation and just happened to photograph a mother burrowing owl feeding her babies. We discussed him sharing his photos with our students upon our return to school. Now, if I read this novel with another group of students, I have this additional resource to draw upon. Jon is a wonderful photographer so I also may have him share a bit about how he became interested in photography (sort of a career/mentor teachable moment). So, you can see how things just fall naturally into place, if you are open and flexible with lesson-planning.

Thus, I do not have a favorite lesson because my lessons are not plans, but scaffolds upon which to build student knowledge. The structure supports and allows lots of room for new thoughts and ideas, which allow broader and deeper connections to be made, even if they are months later (as in the case of the owl photos).

How do you respond when students don’t understand your lesson?
I usually ask the students to tell me what they are thinking. Then I can learn how I can add to their thinking to help them get to the expected level of understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually tell a joke related to the topic to get them all thinking about the same thing and laughing. Then I have their attention and we are back on topic.

I use laughter in class for many reasons. It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus helping to keep all of us well and in school. Iit triggers the release of endorphins, which promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain. Also, it promotes a general feeling of fun while learning. I have had teachers say to me, “When I passed your class, I heard a lot of laughing. It sounded like all of you were having fun.”

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Teaching in a small school — total enrollment is 75 in preschool through 12th grade — makes it easy to know all students. I am also the vice principal of the school and stand at the front door each morning to greet each student. I do this for many reasons, but mostly because I like to and it gives me an overall feeling about how each student’s morning has been thus far. Most students have about an hour ride on the bus to get to school; and, since we have one bus, our entire student body comes in at once. Having preschool through 12th grade students together on one bus sometimes causes problems, so I like to nip them early in the day.

I have been at Paradox Valley School two years and have built relationships with students by: Listening (I ask questions to be sure I understand what they are sharing with me); helping; and, being firm (keeping expectations high) and fair. I think the students respect these qualities and I encourage them to do the same as they interact with one another. Our students are truly amazing young people and the foundation of my relationships with them is based upon mutual respect and learning. I learn from them as much as, I hope, they learn from me.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?
One of the most memorable occurred early in my career and has stuck with me for decades. I was teaching first grade and had a student who was reading significantly below grade level. Diagnostic testing confirmed she needed more time to learn to read. Unfortunately, given the structure of the school in which I was teaching, this meant repeating first grade. Her parents did not agree with the decision so we compromised. I agreed to read with her over the summer and continue to do my best to get her ready for second grade. They agreed, if she was not ready, she would repeat, which is what happened.

I stayed at that school one more year and then transferred to another district, but continued to live in the same community. Years later, her mother sought me out to let me know her daughter was doing well and repeating first grade was the right decision. I was moved that she reached out to let me know. During the span of time between her daughter repeating and seeing her again, I had my own daughter, which also changed my perspective. In my new role as a parent, I tried to let Anna’s teachers and mentors know — from pre-K through college — how much their hard work was appreciated.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One piece of advice I have used often was shared with me by a professor, Dr. Robert Hanny, while I was studying at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. I was struggling to narrow my research for my dissertation, and he said, “Denise, you do not have to build the wall, you only have to add a brick. Add your brick [research] on top of someone else’s brick, which is already laid; and, design your brick so another can be put on yours by someone, who comes along after you.”

This is true for so much of what we do as educators. We teach our students for a limited time and then they go to another teacher. We cannot teach them all they need to know. We can add to what the child knows already, teach as much as possible in the time we have, and know they will continue learning after they leave our classroom.

How I Teach

A call home about a teen’s phone obsession was a revelation for this Colorado high school teacher

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Lisa Bejarano, a math teacher at Aspen Valley High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was frustrated when one of her students wouldn’t stop playing with his phone in class. She finally called his mom about the annoying behavior.

What Bejarano learned during that phone call made her realize how important it is to understand what’s going on with students outside of school.

She talked to Chalkbeat about what she did after talking with the boy’s mother, why she doesn’t have a desk and how she challenges students with perfect scores.

Bejarano received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2016 and is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher because connecting with and learning from other people is everything. I worked as an engineer for five years and while I enjoyed the work, it just wasn’t as satisfying. As a teacher, I am challenged every day. It never gets easier. I learn so much about math and humanity.

What does your classroom look like?
It is usually a mess. I don’t have a desk because I wanted students to dominate the space. Whiteboards on every available surface. Desks in groups of three.

I have one side of the room dedicated to student tools (paper, compasses, rulers, protractors, calculators, etc.) so that they can freely select and use anything they think they may need when working on a task. Students get better at Math Practice standard 5 — Use appropriate tools strategically — when they can practice selecting from a wide variety of tools throughout the school year. They also sometimes surprise me with their creative use of a tool that I would not have considered.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Students. Because I teach people, not content.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Almost every lesson I teach is my favorite lesson at the time that I teach it. I won’t teach a lesson that I am not excited to teach. I particularly enjoy facilitating multi-day tasks with a low bar for entry so that it is accessible to all students and students are free to be creative in their approach to problem-solving.

Usually, I find ideas through other teachers on Twitter or through their blogs. I also find great tasks from the Math Assessment Project and Illustrative Mathematics, then adapt them to fit my style and my students’ needs. I also enjoy creating or adapting activities from Desmos — a collection of digital math tools.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I respond to all students through two-round assessments. In the first round, students give the assessment their best effort. Then I write feedback on a few select questions that attempts to move their learning forward even if their work on the quiz is flawless.

In the second round, students must respond to my feedback using a different color. Then I grade their demonstration of knowledge on each learning target using a four-point rubric. If a student has shown that he or she does not understand a skill, I mark this skill as “missing” or “incomplete” and they must schedule a time to work on this skill and reassess when they are ready. When students get their quiz back, they track their progress.

This process is valuable because it prevents test anxiety. Also, students see me as their partner in learning. They believe that I want them to be successful and that I believe in their ability to achieve at high levels. The process also helps students develop a growth mindset and helps me get a better picture of their understandings and misconceptions, which better informs my teaching.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Students usually get off task if there is something major going on in their lives or if they are confused about the lesson. I address this by both talking to the student and planning a better lesson next time.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Beginning with the first day of school, I work at building a unique relationship with each student. I make sure to find reasons to genuinely value each of them. This starts with weekly “How is it going?” type questions on their warm-up sheets and continues by using their mistakes on “Find the flub Friday” and through feedback quizzes. I also share a lot of myself with them. When we understand each other, my classes are more productive.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my second year of teaching, I had a student who frequently played with his phone during class — let’s call him Larry. I tried everything a new teacher could think of: threatening him, punishing him and confiscating his phone, which was met with extreme outbursts. After many failed attempts, I contacted his mother. She told me that it has been only herself and Larry living together since he was born and that they have a very close relationship. She then told me that she was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and that she had been undergoing surgeries and most likely was not going to live much longer.

By understanding what Larry had going on at home, I was able to support him and advocate for him at school. I created an environment where Larry looked forward to coming to school as a refuge from his stress at home. I set up supports for him through the school’s staff and was able to connect him and his mother to resources to help through this difficult time.

I learned that my students are never just widgets in a system; they are each unique individuals with their own lives and experiences. I think about this any time I get wrapped up in classroom management or trying to follow a pacing guide. I need to make my students feel safe. I need to get to know them. I need to communicate with their families to get the whole picture. I have to ask them how they are doing and then genuinely listen to their responses.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I just finished “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren and just started “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou